Why Michael Avenatti thinks the only way to take on Donald Trump is to 'hit back'

The lawyer representing Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who was allegedly given $130,000 US during the 2016 campaign to cover up her affair with Donald Trump, tells CBC's Rosemary Barton whether he'd depose Trump and why he'd run for president in 2020.

Does Stormy Daniels's lawyer Michael Avenatti think he's that guy?

California-based lawyer Michael Avenatti believes he has the media savvy to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump. (Doug Husby/CBC)

Just six months after most people in the U.S. heard Michael Avenatti's name for the first time, he says he's seriously considering running for president. Even talking to Democrats in high places about it. 

The 47-year-old, California-based lawyer exploded into the American consciousness when he took on one Stephanie Clifford as a client. Better known as Stormy Daniels, she's the porn actress who says she was paid hush money during the 2016 campaign to cover up her affair with Donald Trump. Avenatti quickly became a familiar face on cable news networks and cultivated a rapidly growing Twitter following, branding himself as a one-man Trump resister.

Last month, the case got a boost, when Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, effectively flipped, pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and revealing he made payments to influence the 2016 election at the direction of a candidate for federal office.

Avenatti sat down with The National's Rosemary Barton in Los Angeles. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Stormy Daniels

Avenatti represents porn actress Stormy Daniels in her case against Trump. Daniels says she was paid $130,000 US ahead of the 2016 U.S. election to cover up her affair with the then presidential candidate. (Brendan Mcdermid /Reuters)

Rosemary Barton: Let me just start by asking you how the Stormy Daniels case came to you or how she came to you. Because I'm not sure I know that part of the story.

Michael Avenatti: Well, unfortunately you don't know it because I'm not allowed to disclose it. But what I can disclose is how she did not come to me. She did not come to me by way of the Democratic Party, or any political donor, or any other left-wing interest group. I know there's a lot of conspiracy theorists out there that would like to claim otherwise, but that's not how she came to know me and that's not how I came to represent her.

When she came to you, how quickly did you realize that this wasn't just a porn star who had an affair with a married guy who everybody knew? At what point did you realize this was something bigger?

I realized that it was something bigger shortly after meeting her for the first time. I mean, within hours, frankly, based on my prior experience in politics as well as based on my prior experience with the law.

Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, accepted a plea deal in August and admitted he made the payments to Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal on behalf of 'a candidate for federal office.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When Michael Cohen finally agreed to this plea deal, what went through your mind?

Well, I was not surprised by it. The only thing that was surprising to me was that it took so long. So I think that was my first reaction. And then my second reaction was the same for Stormy, and that is namely that, you know, we both, I think, felt vindicated because a lot of the critics and the people that had criticized our approach to the case and some of the allegations that were made, those critics were proven dead wrong. And it's always a nice thing to be proven right.

Getting Trump on the stand

Even today, I think, you filed more documents in court. You seem to be trying to actively depose [Trump]. Is a deposition really something that could happen?

Oh, I think absolutely. I think it's going to happen. I think the odds are better than 50 per cent that we're going to get a deposition of the president. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

Do you think that you can fairly do a deposition? I mean, because of this public persona now that you have taken on, can you do a deposition?

Hundred per cent. There's no reason why I couldn't take this deposition. I can see why Donald Trump would not want me to take this deposition. Because if I was him, I would not want to be deposed by me. I'm a pretty decent cross-examiner and have been over various points in my career. And so I don't think that that's something he would relish.

At what point does this become less about the lawsuit and more about ending the presidency or trying to bring down a president?

Well, my number one focus is resolving this lawsuit for the benefit of my client. And I think if anyone's looked at the docket or read the court filings or observed me in court, no one can argue that we don't have that focus at the top of our minds, because we do.

Is Avenatti running? 

You're travelling the country,  you're meeting with Democrats. So, this obviously went to another level at some point when you realized, 'Hey, I can maybe turn this into something else.' Why did you decide to start even thinking about that?

Yeah, it really wasn't about me turning it into something else. Because I have a good life. And my life would be much easier if I did not enter the political realm, frankly, and I haven't decided what I'm going to do. And people kind of look at me skeptically when I say that, but that's the honest to God truth as I sit here right now. I don't know whether I'm going to run or whether I'm not going to run.

But you're sussing things out.

I am. I'm absolutely doing my homework. I'm travelling around the country, I'm trying to raise money for Democrats in connection with the midterms. And at the same time, I'm gauging reaction for a potential run. Talking to voters, learning about a few issues, and I'm being very thorough in my approach. And the reason that I am even considering it is because I am very concerned that the Democrats may nominate somebody that cannot beat this guy in 2020.

Avenatti elaborates on whether or not he's considering a presidential run:

Avenatti talks about doing homework for 2020 0:50

But you have almost no political experience...

Look, this is a unique situation. You're not going to beat Donald Trump by nominating an experienced, highly knowledgeable, typical politician that can't hold a stage with him and that cannot compete with him within the media realm that we find ourselves in. You're not going to do that. He's beat 16 to 17 of those individuals already. And the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And that's exactly what is going to happen unless the Democrats nominate the appropriate candidate in 2020. And, by the way, I don't believe I'm the only individual that can do that. I think there's a few others that can do it. And we'll see whether they decide to run or not.

You said in one of these speeches that you've given that when they go low, we hit harder. Why is that the right answer for public discourse in this country right now?

Well, the Democrats certainly can go harder. I mean, the Democrats have been pacifists for far too long. They've been on the right side of issue after issue, they've been completely outmaneuvered and outplayed and beaten, frankly, by the Republicans for a very long time. And we can go through history and if you look at the 1988 campaign of Michael Dukakis not willing to go negative on George Bush, even in light of the Willie Horton ad, Michael Dukakis got crushed in that election. You can look at the 2000 recount and the way that the recount was handled — or mishandled — by the Democrats, and as a result we got George Bush. You can look at the 2004 election and the way the election was mishandled by the Democrats … and that needs to end. In my view, it's something I've believed for a long time. It's just the stakes now are that much higher.

And I think one of the reasons why I have been met with such enthusiasm for my potential candidacy is a lot of other people seem to believe that. People realize that if we don't fight for the future of this nation, for the values and the principles upon which the United States was formed, we're going to have a serious problem in 2020 and beyond.

In some ways, you know how to move the media the same way that [Trump] does. How does that make things better for this country if you just all end up playing on the same level? I just wonder how that improves politics,  improves people's lives, improves democracy.

This is about winning. And if you don't win in 2020, you're never going to have a chance to implement policies that affect people's lives. You're never going to have a chance to unify this country, on race or otherwise. You're just not. And anybody that claims otherwise, in my view, is just wrong. So this isn't about how one is going to govern. This is about how one is going to get the opportunity to govern. The only person that has a shot of beating this guy is somebody with a big personality that knows how to hit back. I mean, do you think Donald Trump wants to face me on a debate stage? I don't think so. I think the dichotomy between me and Donald Trump on the debate stage would be shocking, frankly. 

Avenatti discusses the current nature of political debate in the U.S.:

Avenatti on why winning is crucial for Dems in 2020 1:00

So get you the win and then you'll figure out how to be president.

Well, look, there's no question I can do the job. I'm not concerned about being able to do the job. For 20 years, I've tried cases around this country that have been very complicated, with very complicated issues. I'm not a slip-and-fall lawyer. And in each of those cases, I've done the same thing. I've gone out, I've hired the most qualified people in the world —  experts in their field. I brought them in. I've had them educate me. I've listened to them, which is a very novel concept. I say that sarcastically. The problem with Donald Trump, one of the problems, is he doesn't allow any co-stars on this stage. He doesn't surround himself with the best people and the smartest people and he doesn't listen to them. Even ... in the rare instances that he does surround himself with competent people, he doesn't listen to them. And that's why many of them leave after short periods of time.

So when do you make a decision then? How does this unfold? You're going to keep talking to people?

I honestly do not have a timeline for this. I didn't expect to be put in this position. But this is a very serious problem facing the United States and others. Somebody is going to have to solve it. I don't know if I'm that guy yet. I'm very concerned about this country. I'm incredibly concerned about what's going to happen after 2020 if Donald Trump is elected to a second term. And I think there's a significant chance that he could be re-elected in 2020. I think that's going to be a brutal campaign, knock-down, drag-out fight. And whoever the Democrats nominate better be prepared to go the distance in a cage match.


What's with basta? Like, almost all your tweets end, #basta.  

So basta is a word that I first came to know from my grandmother who was on my father's side, who was Italian, and she used to say to me, "Basta!" growing up, like "Enough!" And so when I first got involved in this case, I thought it was rather a propos the circumstances, and so I started using #basta and it's caught on.

So it's an anti-Trump moniker that people are trying to give you and maybe that you're embracing? I'm not sure. It's unclear to me here. You're OK with that?

That I'm the anti-Trump? Well, I think, under the circumstances, I can think of few things that would be more complimentary.

Watch the full interview:

Stormy Daniels's lawyer thinks he may be the right person to take down Donald Trump in 2020 11:01